#AudioTour “Quest of the Dreamwalker” by Stacy Bennett

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Author: Stacy Bennett

Narrator: Zachary Johnson

Length: 14 hours 49 minutes

Series: The Corthan Legacy, Book 1

Publisher: Miramae Press

Released: May 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Cara has been a prisoner all her life, shackled by a broken soul and fear of her father’s temper. When a mercenary captain is taken prisoner, he sparks something in her she doesn’t recognize – rebellion. Determined to save the captain’s life, she flees with him intent on leaving her past behind. It isn’t love that drives her father’s zealous pursuit, but a hidden magical birthright she never knew about. Now she must solve the puzzle of her past before her father kills everyone she loves in his bid to reclaim her.

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Stacy has always been a nomad, but is currently residing in New Jersey. For now.

She enjoys multilayered tales with simple structure and deeper intent, stories of soul and psyche and heart. There’s nothing better than a book that convinces you its inhabitants are as real as you are. Then again, maybe we are only characters in someone else’s tale.

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Lover of mathematics, devourer of science fiction, and connoisseur of the dad joke. When he’s not doing math for business or fun, he’s devouring science fiction and fantasy, reading up on scientific advancements, going for a jog, or, on all too rare occasions, taking a refreshing swim at the beach. At your service, you shall have an able storyteller and gifted conveyor of information. Experienced in narrating fiction, from the romantic to the post-apocalyptic, and nonfiction, from the historical to the corporate, and armed with the tools to make it all sound great, Zachary promises that, no matter the job, you’ll be read-iculously pleased!

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Q&A with Narrator Zachary Johnson

When did you know you wanted to be an audiobook narrator?

I don’t think I really knew that I wanted to do it for a living until I had done it on and off for a few years. I dabbled with 4 or 5 a year for 5 or so years, sort of getting to know the craft, albeit very slowly. I walked away from it a couple of times, not really thinking I could make a living at it. Then COVID hit, and I took some time off from my day job, and right before my leave of absence started, I got an email from an author I worked with briefly in the past that basically said “Hey, I’ve got these 10 books I want to pay you a lot for. Want ‘em?” So I took some time to think about it, by which I mean I almost immediately said to myself “Guess I’m a narrator now!”

A lot of narrators seem to have a background in theatre. Is that something you think is essential to a successful narration career?

-Any acting experience is a boon, for sure; I have two years of training in on-stage acting myself, and it’s been nothing but helpful. But there are narrators who I know and others who I don’t who are widely respected experts at their jobs who have no theater background at all. And besides those stage acting classes and a play or two I was in in middle school (one of which involved me playing an extra with no lines), I don’t have any background in theater whatsoever. I’m just some math geek who pretty much fell into this line of work. I think that it’s mostly about finding the right people to teach you the craft, developing an appreciation for said craft, and then learning how to bring your personality and uniqueness to the story and characters more than anything else. A theater background or some stage training certainly helps with that; they’re invaluable for learning how to fully explore your psyche in ways that enable a person to bring interesting aspects of themselves to each story and character, but even then, there’s a learning curve involved in transitioning from the stage to the booth. On stage, you have fellow cast members to act off of, the freedom to explore your vocal range volume-wise and plenty of space to move and gesticulate. In the booth, it’s all you (unless you live stream your readings on Discord, which I do, and which anyone reading should totally come to; it’s a fun time!), space is limited, and moving too far off mic, hitting your equipment by mistake if your gestures are too wild, or unleashing your full vocal power might result in unusable audio. I guess the TL;DR is, in my opinion: Very helpful, but not essential.

How do you manage to avoid burn-out? What do you do to maintain your enthusiasm for narrating?

It’s really important for me to do the things that everyone always says you should do when you’re in business for yourself, of course. Sleep, eat right, get outside, exercise, devote time to taking days off and spending time with people I love, find hobbies and interests outside of my work (card magic is a new favorite of mine, and I also blog from time to time to satisfy my urge to write stuff), and so on. Anything that provides a healthy distance from my work for a little while and mitigates some of the more isolating aspects of it. But I think what’s most important for me is to never forget how fundamentally fun my job is. Sometimes I get incredibly lucky and just fall in love with a story I’m narrating, as was the case for Quest of the Dreamwalker, and really anything Stacy Bennett writes, as is currently the case for Golden Darkness Descends by JMD Reid and Into Neon by Matthew Goodwin, two incredible tales I’m in the process of narrating at the time of this interview, and it’s just so easy to look forward to work. Who wouldn’t want to play around like a kid and pretend to be all sorts of fun things, from evil goddesses to cyborgs, to fire conjurers, and all manner of awesome stuff. But it’s ultimately still a job, and it’s inevitable that once work and pleasure mix, there’s this almost Pavlovian association with stress that one can develop that really erodes one’s enjoyment of their vocation if they’re not careful. I think one way I’ve learned to combat that is to play with ways that make my work fun again. For example, I’m in the process of introducing narration to my blog posts, and making YouTube videos to show off my skills, and maybe even doing some content that showcases other aspects of voice-over, and that’s all very low stakes and fun and doable on my days off and reminds me to be grateful for the job I have.

What about this title compelled you to audition as narrator?

Stacy actually reached out to me, and I have to admit I was intimidated. Up until then, I hadn’t taken on a project more than ten or so hours, and I really didn’t know if I could handle a project that was upwards of fourteen hours, especially because I was still doing my own editing at the time. But then I read the audition script and knew I had to do it. It was just brilliant. Within a page I was immersed in this world she’d clearly spent so much time and energy and love creating and I was so honored she wanted to entrust this no-name narrator with it that I almost immediately said yes and sent her an audition. And the rest is history. And there’s Call of the Huntress in my future, so it was easily one of the best decisions I ever made.

How did you decide how each character should sound in this title?

I do have a repertoire of archetypes, accents, and vocal quirks and qualities, like pitch, gravel, breathiness, nasality, and so on that I can adjust, combine, and really just play with to suit each person, but I realized over time that a character is more than simply an amalgam of vocal qualities. Those are more just toys to play with once an examination of the character done during prep gives proper insight into their personality, motivation, and so on (and sometimes if you’re lucky, the text will just plainly tell you what the character sounds like). That inner “soul” of the character is going to inform how they sound more than anything else. It’s often the case that the right tools to polish the voice to the proper shine, like the aforementioned vocal idiosyncrasies, will follow naturally from that study. One of my favorite things to do, though, is play with tonal contrast. I love, for example, having a character who’s on the small side have a deep, rumbling baritone (if it suits their personality), or a gentle talking panda with the over-the-top accent of New York City beat cop (which may or may not be an upcoming project of mine that I may or may not be REALLY excited about). It’s just fun to me. I also like to assemble a list of major and recurring characters in a story and compile a demo reel of what each one is going to sound like before I ever start narrating. That way I can keep things consistent. But of course, you also have to look at how a character develops throughout the novel or series you’re reading. They may me a completely different person, and, for (a rather depressing) example, that innocent kid at the start, might be jaded and brooding by the end, so even things that might seem inherent to that character’s voice, like pitch and cadence, might change pretty strikingly by the time you get to the end of their story. It might go the other way, too. Maybe the brooding bad boy learns to lighten up a bit! For this specific title, I leaned pretty heavily on certain archetypes, like the booming British baritone for the antagonist, but that’s in large part because the character read that way when I was preparing the text. There was also a sort of domino effect in some cases. Like when I decided Archer should have a quasi-Scottish sound to his voice, it necessarily followed that so would everyone from his home village. Which made at least part of the process of choosing voices for them at least a bit simpler, but each still had a unique vibe to their personalities depending on age, status, life experience, and so on.

How does audiobook narration differ from other types of voice-over work you’ve done?

It’s more physically and mentally demanding, I think, than any form of voice acting I’ve ever encountered. By the end of a session, I’m drenched in sweat, have downed 6 liters of water just to beat the heat in my booth, and am in desperate need of a nap. And I probably do two or three sessions, at least two hours in length, sometimes three, in a day. For four to five days a week. And even for me, someone who is about as introverted as introverted gets, it can be lonely. You’re rarely live directed, even when you live stream your work on Discord (which I do; come say hi – I’m friendly! Plus, I’m not the only narrator that does this; you can watch and meet so many talented people), you can only check in on the chat every so often if you want to keep your production to downtime ratio favorable (and not every author or publisher is amenable to it, for understandable reasons, so it may not even be an option), and you’re locked in a small, often windowless space that can be almost unnaturally quiet depending on how good your soundproofing is. And there is no work I’ve done that has made me more acutely aware of just how noisy the world is. With a shorter project, you can get it done relatively quickly, but with an audiobook, each passing motorcycle, each garbage day, each unexpected bout of road construction, can totally derail a day of work, so oddly, it demands as much flexibility as it does regimentation and discipline in terms of scheduling. It’s a job where it’s never a bad idea to make sure you have backup productive work to do in case your auditory surroundings simply aren’t on your side. Simply put it’s hard. It’s a marathon instead of a sprint.

Do you read reviews for your audiobooks?

I do. They’re interesting to me. I don’t have the time or inclination as much anymore because I’m considerably more confident in my performances than I used to be when I was starting out. But early on, especially, that was a really important way for me to judge my success. After all, who else is my product for if not the listener? If they consistently hate it, I’m doing something wrong. Now I use them to judge how my audiobooks are doing exposure-wise, but I also like to read what some of my regular listeners have to say. I’m actually at a point now where even negative reviews are more interesting than anything else (rather than the place I think all artists go at least once where we ignore every positive comment and fixate on the one or two people we just couldn’t impress; that’s obviously a lot less healthy). I can’t make everyone happy, and it took me a while to realize that, but occasionally people really do take the time to offer legitimately helpful criticisms. I’m not obligated to agree with or address every single one, and since art forms like acting are so subjective, anything I fix to please a listener that hates my performances may suddenly alienate a listener that used to love them. But, for me, they’re worth checking in on now and then.

If so, which ones stand out to you most, positive or negative?

This is my all-time favorite positive review, and it’s actually for Quest of the Dreamwalker!

“Zachary Johnson, narrator, performs this epic novel as if he were born to do so.  He owns the book with his talent to step into the story and wear each character as if it was his true identity.  While his female voices are not feminine by any means, he does a good job of making them female through emotion and style of speaking.  In other words, Fallon is spoken strongly – she is a strong female lead; Cara is hesitant – she is shy and unsure; Moira is in love, hopelessly with a man and is tired of waiting; her tearful voice demonstrates her passion.  I enjoyed Zachary Johnson’s reading so much so that it was a disappointment to reach the end of the book.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves magic, dragons, and knights in shining armor (ok, slightly tarnished armor).

There were no issues with the production or quality of this audiobook.”

This one stuck with me for a couple of reasons. First, I was always afraid that I could never convincingly voice female characters. My voice is deep enough that I have trouble pitching it high without sounding like I’m intentionally trying to be ridiculous, which obviously isn’t suitable for every character I’d play, and would really only grate on the poor listener if I tried to sound “feminine” that way. My solution was not to bother trying. I would just use exactly what this reviewer describes. I would vary cadence, maybe add some of those quirks I mentioned (I’ve even used depth and gravel for female characters and it totally worked because it matched up with the characters’ personalities), maybe use accents. But really what I chose to focus on was personality over pitch. I wish I could say this was some great insight on my part, but it really was just a response to a fear I had of trying too hard to “sound female (whatever that means).” Nonetheless, reading this review taught me an important lesson: What matters, above all else, is my acting, not my range. Range is great, but acting is everything. Second, I was convinced I would never even be competent at engineering my own audio. This review dispelled that notion. And I’ll forever be grateful for this one.

This is probably my favorite negative review (I got two stars for my performance):

“The inflection of words and manner in which this was read was not how I pictured this beautifully written novel to be narrated. There was an underlying angst in the narration that didn’t fully fit. I definitely enjoyed physically reading this instead of listening. “

This one taught me an important lesson. And that’s that everyone has their own idea of how a story should sound, and no matter how right my acting choices might feel, or how much the author likes them, there will *always* be those listeners who won’t agree with me. And they’ve every right to do so. Art is meant to be enjoyed by an individual in their individual way, and while I was sad I couldn’t connect with this particular listener through my performance, it would be ridiculous for me to begrudge them their opinion on it, and equally ridiculous for me to cast aside my whole performative paradigm just to please this one person. Nobody is really at fault here. We simply enjoy and imagine our art differently. And that’s as fine as it is inevitable. That is to say, completely.

What type of the review comments do you find most constructive?

I like knowing specifically what does or doesn’t resonate. It’s nice to hear “it was great,” it sucks to hear “it sucked,” but it’s fascinating to hear “I loved/hated these specific elements of the performance and here’s why.” I guess it’s my math brain. I like to know exactly why things do or don’t work.

What bits of advice would you give to aspiring audiobook narrators?

I would say this:

Before you ever decide to do this for a living, perform “the test.” This will sound silly, but Sean Pratt, an amazing performer I had the honor of studying under, is absolutely right to recommend it. You need to know if you can stand the experience of being stuck in a tight space reading aloud for hours at a time. So, do that! Grab a book, sit in a closet, and get to reading. Do it for a couple of hours. Do it multiple times a week. And if you run across an unfamiliar word? Look it up! No guessing!

If you decide to go for it, your setup should be constructed in this order:

Recording environment. A closet full of clothing is fine. Maybe cover up any exposed drywall with blankets. What’s important is that you find a quiet space, and you deaden that reverb.

Interface. Get yourself a good solid preamp with a lot of gain. You need to be able to adjust the volume of your raw recordings properly, and you need what comes out of the mic and passes through the preamp to sound good.

XLR microphone. Some people might disagree with me on this, but I would avoid direct-to-USB mics. You can construct a decent XLR setup for around $600-$700 and get a sound quality that’s really quite nice out of it; several books of mine that are very well-reviewed were recorded on such a setup.

Past a certain point, equipment doesn’t make or break you. People aren’t going to be impressed by your Neumann U87 if you don’t have the performance skills to bring a book to life in audio, or the environment you need to ensure it’s not going to pick up each and every little auditory flaw. Great equipment is nice. Heck, for geeks like me, it’s a good reward for a year well-done or some such (“If I accomplish this career goal, I get this new toy to play with” kind of a deal). But your priority needs to be your craft. Get tools good enough to ply your trade. Don’t invest more than you need to when you’re starting out.

Regardless of your prior acting experience level, if you are just starting out in narration: Get. Coaching. This is a unique field with unique idiosyncrasies and a tightly knit community. The insight of people who know the craft and the business inside and out is not just invaluable, it is essential. Everything I have, I owe to the insights of those who know better than me. I can only hope to pay some small amount of that forward by giving this piece of advice. If you need recommendations, look up Sean Pratt or Vanessa Moyen. They’re both amazing.

What’s next for you?

More stories, more streams, hopefully more blogs and more YouTube, and a bachelor’s in mathematics (in case you needed further proof that I exist fully within the nerd genus)! And I hope to meet more great people, narrators, authors, and listeners alike as I keep on truckin’! And, once everything is safe again, look for me at lit conventions! I’ll be the goofy guy with the handbag, suit, and novelty tie. Come say hi!

Bonus question: Any funny anecdotes from inside the recording studio?

If you need an absolutely concrete example of why you read ahead and research pronunciations, look no further than the time I told of an evil wizard’s inner sanctum lit by “flaming brassieres.” Turns out that’s not how you saw braziers. And that’s why you don’t guess.

Book 2 of The Corthan Legacy is in production and will be released this summer!

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